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Dirk Wiemann

For a minor history - postcolonial texts as supplement to literature

"Never again shall a single story be told as though it were the only one." When Arundhati Roy chooses to overcode The God of Small Things (1995) with this quote taken from John Berger's G. (1972), she is probably aware of the fact that another postcolonial writer, Michael Ondaatje, had already in 1986 used that very same epigraph for his novel, In the Skin of a Lion. Of course there are no rules against the multiple employment of epigraphs, nor against one author's quoting another author's quoting yet another author; these might in fact be common practices that have merely escaped me for lack of erudition. However, I am at this point not primarily interested in the (para)textual politics involved in such cross-referential manoeuvres - the tricky subversion-cum-reconfirmation of author-ity; the further obscuring of the 'original' as it comes as a hand-me-down; not even the possibly transgressive implications of a gesture in which the postcolonial writer appropriates the metropolitan as always-already appropriated by the postcolonial. My interest is, instead, naively content-based: What could be the possible relation(s) between texts and paratext, these texts and this paratext (and the text the latter stems from)? Why should, after Bakhtin, after the (alleged) demise of grands récits, and in the heyday of hybridity, an indictment against 'an only story' still hold an appeal for postcolonial writers? In other words: What universalist claim is being countered in postcolonial texts such as Roy's and Ondaatje's? 

Postcolonial critics like Gayatri Spivak, David Scott or R. Radhakrishnan conceive of the present global neo-liberalist hegemony, however differently nuanced, as an updated version and continuation of the long 'only story' of western universalism, now, in its apparently pluralistic postmodern avatar, packaged as fundamental self-interrogation and still instrumental in the ongoing project of violently interpellating the non-west. Meanwhile, according to both Scott and Radhakrishnan, a plurality of 'local knowledges' or modes of 'subaltern self-fashioning' are widely practiced in the postcolonial world, though everywhere contained by capitalist homogenisation. Radhakrishnan's utopian figure of a multilateral universality, which at first might ring of an attempt to square the circle, finds a systematic philosophical amplification in the writings of the historian Dipesh Chakrabarty, whose work is concerned with the very same politics of representing diversity that Scott and Radhakrishnan address. Chakrabarty envisages a project of 'provincialising Europe' with the objective "that the world may once again be imagined as radically heterogeneous"[1]. Yet in Chakrabarty, there is an extreme cautiousness about claiming the unproblematic availability of other knowledges untainted by western imposition since it is precisely in the area of epistemology that a 'hyperreal Europe' exerts an uninterrupted global domination (whereas Europe in the referential sense of a geographical, political or even economic entity "has already been provincialized by history itself" [3]). Though ontologically merely a figure of the imaginary, the hyperreal 'Europe' is by no means just a spectral hangover from the period of colonial expansion, nor can critical analysis "make it go away" (28). The successful implementation of Europe's specific knowledge system as universally valid has not evaporated along with colonialism proper; it is, instead, continuously being reproduced as long as "the privilege of providing the metanarrtives or teleologies" (37) of theory is monopolised by western modern thought.

Where Scott and Radhakrishnan highlight the facticity of non-western knowledges, Chakrabarty problematises their silencing in a framework of epistemic hierarchies according to the monologic script of Europe's protocols that renders any non-western knowledge insufficient. As in Partha Chatterjee's interrogation of modernity, it is Hegelian political theory (the nation state with its division into political and civil society as the 'only story') and the capitalist mode of production that ineluctably circumscribe the horizon of universal history, leaving all possible alternatives systematically undertheorised. Nevertheless, the marginalised is, and its very existence spells out a disclaimer to the universal validity claims of 'Europe'; it also effects a revision of Chakrabarty's own earlier proposition according to which the longevity of the imposition of Europe could only be responded to by a "politics of despair". This latter is a bitterly ironic intervention that erases itself by permanently pointing at its own impossibility[2] under the aegis of the global dominant: The project of provincialising Europe is "impossible within the knowledge protocols of academic history, for the globality of academia is not independent of the globality that the European modern has created" (46). Given that Chakrabarty's international reputation is primarily based on exactly this pessimism[3], readers might be slightly astonished to find, in conclusion to Provincializing Europe, the statement that "at the end of European imperialism, European thought is a gift to us all. We can talk of provincializing it only in an anticolonial spirit of gratitude" (255). Such reconciliatory overtones are obviously due to a revision of 'Europe', and in fact much of Chakrabarty's book reads like a mollification of the more polemical, more 'radical' 1992 article. What has been changed? In the 1999 version, Europe itself becomes a site of diversity: Marx, in 1992, had appeared basically as a collaborator in the consolidation of the metanarrative of universal history by way of elevating capital to the status of "a philosophical and universal category" (30) equipped with the status "of the Hegelian idea of a totalizing unity" (47) that, despite Marx's own "vision of emancipation [...] beyond the rule of capital" (30), effectively implemented a systematic historicism spurning Eurocentrist narratives "around the theme of 'historical transition'" (31). It is precisely through this progressivist reading that Marx(ism) gets inserted into, and collaborative with, that allochronic discourse[4] by which – according to David Scott - "the west folds the non-west into its privileged telos". In 1999, however, Chakrabarty provides a selective reading of Marx that turns the Hegelianism of orthodox marxist historicism inside out. In the apocryphal sections of Marxian scripture - those scattered observations on surplus value that were supposed to form the fourth volume of Capital -, Chakrabarty excavates a Marx who proposes a multiplicity of pasts beyond the teleology of capital and modernity, a world that exceeds the universal history of transitions to the capitalist mode (and thereafter to socialism and the classless society). There is, then, in Marx himself the concession that not all history is one long transition to capitalism and beyond; that not all pasts can be reduced to antecedents of the present (capitalist-modern) mode; "that the total universe of pasts that capital encounters is larger than the sum of those elements in which are worked out the logical presuppositions of capital" (64). All the same, in Marx (and more surprisingly so, in Chakrabarty) the universal history of capital (i.e. the conceptualisation of history in terms of subsequent modes of production) remains intact with the proviso that it is supplemented by those elements that capital does "not [encounter] as antecedents established by itself, not as forms of its own life-process"[5]. While the familiar terrain of the transition narrative constitutes what Chakrabarty labels "History 1", those pasts "that do not lend themselves to the reproduction of the logic of capital" (64) constitute "History 2", "a category charged with the function of constantly interrupting the totalizing thrusts of History 1" (66). The monolateral narrative of transition (the 'only story' of historicism) is thus replaced by a principal pluralism, given that History 2s are not misused "for writing histories that are alternatives to the narratives of capital" (66) which would again relegate them to the status of the dialectical other of capital. Instead,  

[t]he idea of History 2 allows us to make room, in Marx's own analytic of capital, for the politics of human belonging and diversity. It gives us a ground on which to situate our thoughts about multiple ways of being human and their relationship to global capital. (67) 

The notion of a coeval synchronicity of capital and other forms of 'human belonging' "in intimate and plural relationships" (66) could easily be dismissed as a harmonism, or a wishful thinking, that stops short at a description of the status quo as inherently heterogeneous[6] without taking full cognizance of the conflictualities these relations imply. Chakrabarty is, however, primarily interested in a principal rewriting of the narrative of capital, a rewriting in which the notion of a 'universal' capital would be foreclosed; more generally speaking, his objective is the heterogenisation, from within, of a concept ('capital') that in some dominant discourse is deemed to be categorically homogeneous[7]. In such a heterogenising version of the story, "globalization of capital is not the same as capital's universalization" (71). Far from implementing a unilateral and monocultural formation on a global scale, the present is shot through with historical difference since "[n]o global (or even local, for that matter) capital can ever represent the universal logic of capital, for any historically available form of capital is a provisional compromise made up of History 1 modified by somebody's History 2s" (70). Even though introduced as a repository of the incommensurate ("could be entirely immeasurable" [93]), historical difference does not figure as 'pure' difference but guarantees the very possibility of the emergence of "diverse ways of being human, the infinite incommensurabilities through which we struggle - perennially, precariously, but unavoidably - to 'world the earth'" (254, second emphasis mine). In spite of Chakrabarty's own self-declared anti-totalistic agenda emphasising 'infinite incommensurabilities', his text, on a more fundamental level, produces a reconciliation of the universal and the particular, History 1 and History 2s: While an acknowledgment of the latter is the prerequisite for a recognition of the actual plural modes of human belonging, the former, precisely in its abstracting tendency, remains indispensable for any critical reading of modernity in the light of its own official script, "the Enlightenment promise of an abstract, universal, never-to-be-realized humanity" (254).

It is the objective of my paper to delineate a reading of some selected postcolonial literary texts in the light of Chakrabarty's intervention into the discourse of historicism.


[1]  Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe. Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, Delhi (Oxford University Press) 2001, 46. The first chapter, from which this quote is taken, coincides with the 1992 article "Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks for 'Indian' Pasts?" that helped establish the phrase 'provincialising Europe' as a keyword in postcolonial studies.
[2]
Chakrabarty does not omit the programme of a politics of despair from the first chapter of his book but adds in a supplemet that "the 'politics of despair' I once proposed with some passion does not any longer drive the larger argument presented here" (46).
[3]
  Cf. e.g. David Punter's appropriation of Chakrabarty's 'politics of despair' for his own privileging of "melancholy, [...] defeat and loss";  Postcolonial Imaginings. Fictions of a New World Order, Edinburgh (Edinburgh University Press) 2000, 188; the direct reference to Chakrabarty opens the book  (vii), selectively quoting from the 1992 article.
[4]
  Johannes Fabian's devastating critique of anthropology is certainly still one of the most poignant verdicts against the allochronic discourse "by which relations between the West and its Other [...] were conceived not only as difference, but as distance in space and Time"; Time and the Other. How Anthropology Makes Its Object, New York (Columbia University Press) 1983, 147.
[5]
  Marx quoted in Chakrabarty from Theories of Surplus Value; for the German original, cf. MEW 26.3, Theorien über den Mehrwert, Berlin/GDR (Dietz) 1968, 460: "Diese ältren Formen findet es [das industrielle Kapital] vor in der Epoche seiner Bildung und seines Entstehens. Es findet sie als Voraussetzungen vor, aber nicht als von ihm selbst gesetzte Voraussetzungen, nicht als Formen seines eigenen Lebensprozesses."
[6]
  Is it necessary to recall here that 'Hegelian marxists' such as Georg Lukács or Fredric Jameson, not to mention Marx himself, have consistently addressed heterogeneity within the 'totalising' framework of the analysis of modes of production?
[7]
  In a later section of the book, Chakrabarty performs a structurally similar dissociation of the notion of the present in homogeneous time, suggesting, with Heidegger, "not-being-a-totality a constitutional characteristic of the 'now'" (250). I am not going to discuss this particular section since it merely repeats the discursive heterogenisation applied to 'capital' in the section under scrutiny here.